The campus tour and official information session are the focal point of any campus visit. But it’s important to remember that a lot of thought (and money) has gone into creating a wonderful experience for the visiting family (there are even consulting groups that do nothing but advise college admissions directors on how to improve the campus visit experience). At the risk of sounding overly cynical, I want you to think about those sales pitches for time shares at resorts. If you’ve sat through a few of those—just as I have taken hundreds of tours and sat through hundreds of information sessions—you’ll probably have the right frame of mind as you enter the admissions office for the first time.
- Arrive early. Sometimes visitor parking is not right next to the admissions office. Leave yourselves time to get lost and found again.
- Sign in at the front desk in the admissions office. Colleges collect information about which applicants go on tours and which do not. You want to make sure your name is on the right list.
- Confirm at the front desk any other arrangements or appointments you have made on campus, including meetings with professors, coaches, or interviews with admissions officers. Make sure you have phone numbers and email addresses of the people you plan to meet. The admissions staff can sometimes help you confirm these meetings.
- Don’t base your impression of the school on your impression of the tour guide. Some guides are great. Some are not. Some guides are people with whom you will instantly click. Others will have personalities that turn you off. Remember that the guide is only one student of hundreds or thousands (or tens of thousands). This person is only your guide—a paid member of the admissions office staffl—and not an elected or official representative of the entire student body.
- Remember that the student tour guides are told which route to take, which buildings or programs to highlight, and are coached on how to answer certain kinds of questions. But there may be many questions that either too technical (e.g., “are chemistry exams normed or curved?”) or too specific (e.g., “what percentage of the student body majors in chemistry?”) for them to answer well. This is why you must find ways to get answers to those questions—from faculty, from admissions staff, or from other students.
- Keep in mind that the dorms shown on the tour may be the nicest on campus. Ask the tour guide about his or her freshman dorm and current living arrangements. Ask which is the worst freshman dorm on campus (and perhaps pay a visit to that one after the tour!).
- Similarly, the classrooms you will be shown may or may not be representative. Often you will be shown very nice classrooms; ask about the classrooms in which the tour guide is now taking classes. Where are those classrooms, and how do they compare with the one you are viewing? Are they larger? Smaller? More or less technologically equipped? You want to get a sense of the variety of classroom spaces on campus. Science students, especially, should be sure to see the science laboratory spaces.
- Take note of which buildings and facilities were not on the tour. If the library is not on the tour, I take it as a red flag and make a beeline for it as soon as the tour is over. If there are particular facilities that you want to learn about and that interest you (e.g., the dance studio, art classrooms, labs, swimming pool), either ask whether you will have time on the tour to visit, or get directions on where to find these places after your tour.
- After the tour, continue to wander the campus. Take your time. Sample campus food. Visit the student center. Pick up a student newspaper. Read bulletin boards. Wander the academic buildings, especially those in which you have a keen academic interest. And if you pass a professor’s office and the door is open, poke your head in, introduce yourself, and ask a couple of questions about the students on campus. You’ll be amazed at how forthright professors can be!
In the next installment, we’ll talk about how to interpret the official “information session” that either precedes or follows the official campus tour.
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